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Chemical leak shuts down I-75 for hours

Thousands of residents were evacuated during the incident that caused no injuries.

A truck leaking anhydrous ammonia on Interstate 75 in Shelby County on Tuesday shut down the highway for six hours, backed up traffic for miles, forced thousands of people to evacuate and even caused businesses to close.

The truck was carrying approximately 20 tons of the hazardous chemical when it left Lima Tuesday morning and started traveling southbound on I-75 before the leak was discovered by another driver around exit 92 in Sidney.

The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, which regulates hazardous materials transportation, said a pressure regulator failed on the tanker, operated by Hausbeck Brothers, Inc., which does business as DHT Logistics.

A DHT driver was transporting the gas from Lima to Versailles when a pressure regulator failed and the anhydrous ammonia started to leak from the tanker, PUCO spokesman Matt Schilling said.

There were no reports of injuries.

“As he went under an underpass, he thought that there was construction and he heard a sound like air-blasting,” Sidney Fire Lt. Chad Hollinger said. “He was notified … he had product coming from the top of his truck.”

Ohio has had 22 releases of anhydrous ammonia during transport since 2005, including two in Miami County and four in Hamilton County, according to federal data.

About 100 personnel responded to assist the cleanup and analyze the scene, including representatives from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, Sidney-Shelby County Hazardous Material Response Team, PUCO, Sidney police and multiple fire departments.

Firefighters sprayed the chemical with water to keep it from spreading through the air.

Authorities were “diligent because we don’t want anyone injured or killed,” Hollinger said.

Anhydrous ammonia is primarily used in the agricultural industry as a fertilizer. When anhydrous off-gases, it produces an irritant to the respiratory system and skin. It can cause burns to the respiratory tract and lungs, as well as any moist areas that it comes in contact with.

Dina Pierce, spokeswoman for the Ohio EPA, said a little bit of the ammonia ran off into a ditch, which led to “a couple of stressed out crayfish but nothing significant.” EPA and Ohio Department of Natural Resources staff will not need to go back out again today, she said.

Most of the chemical vented into the air as a gas and it didn’t appear that there was any impact on waterways, she said. Anhydrous ammonia has a boiling point of negative 28 degrees Fahrenheit, so it needs to be kept very cold and under pressure to prevent it from converting into a gas, Pierce said.

Residents and businesses in the area east of I-75, south of Russell Road, west of 4th Avenue and north of Ohio 47 were evacuated, according to Sidney City Manager Mark Cundiff.

Chuck Shepherd, a deputy with the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office, lives on Fair Oaks Drive inside the one-mile radius. He had a crew of four inmates working inside the radius when the spill occurred, and he was told to evacuate the area and return the inmates to the county jail.

Shepherd was not concerned about the spill when he got home after 2 p.m.

“The wind’s blowing east, so it’s not really affecting people in this area,” he said. “They’ve been out there all day. I know they’ll handle it well.”

Trudy Jones, who lives on 6th Avenue, just outside the radius, said it would have been nice if the residents in her neighborhood also received a notification. She didn’t find out until her husband, Wally, was sent home from work at American Trim on Michigan Street.

Jones said the family took precautionary measures, and packed clothes and food “just in case we have to get out.”

Bruce Bargar, who also works at American Trim, said he showed up at work for his afternoon/evening shift and the parking lot was empty.

“These kinds of gases are transported all the time on big roads and railroads,” said Bargar, while standing in the Kroger parking lot. “There’s just no choice. This is farm country, and it makes sense he’d be in the area.”

According to a Kroger employee, customers were advised to stay inside the store. A Kroger manager deferred all comment to the company’s corporate office in Cincinnati. There were very few customers in Kroger during the early afternoon, and an employee could be seen wearing a medical mask to cover his nose and mouth while retrieving shopping carts.

Ann Shaffer, a resident on 6th Avenue, was shopping in Kroger at the time and said she stayed about 45 minutes in the store — a little longer than usual — to get exercise.

“I didn’t worry about it,” said Shaffer, noting she found out about the chemical leak while watching Channel 7. “I worry about people who have to work with it.”

Other businesses in the same shopping center were affected. Buffalo Wild Wings was closed until “further notice,” according to a sign posted on its front door.

Wendy Vukovic, general manager of Aaron’s, said the road closures “killed business.” Aaron’s had two customers in a four-hour span during the incident, she said.

Vukovic said the store received two automated calls to evacuate and turn off the air conditioning. She turned the air conditioning off and sent the other four employees home, but planned to bring them back in around 5 p.m.

“It’s very disheartening,” Vukovic said. “We’re a small store here. We survive on everyday business. We need our business every day just to make ends meet by the end of the month.”

Authorities used a Hyper-Reach system to send out an evacuation message to area businesses and residents, Hollinger said. The evacuation notice went out to approximately 5,000 people, he said.

The Hyper-Reach system also allows authorities to make telephone calls, send texts and emails about emergencies to those who sign-up for the service.

There were no reports of authorities having to forcibly remove anyone from their homes or businesses.

The incident was reported just before 10 a.m. I-75 between Fair Road and Ohio 29 closed, and traffic was rerouted around and through the city. Ohio 47 and Russell Road also were closed. I-75 was reopened to traffic shortly before 4 p.m. Tuesday.

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